This is a three part series on Sickness by J C Ryle (1816-1900) Who served as the Bishop of Liverpool in the Church of England. Although this message is old, it is as useful today as it was then, for it is saturated with Scriptures and directed a Christian world-view which is so lacking in our day. Enjoy your read.
The general benefits which sickness confers on mankind.
I use that word "benefits" advisedly. I feel it of deep importance to see this part of our subject clearly. I know well that sickness is one of the supposed weak points in God’s government of the world, on which sceptical minds love to dwell.–"Can God be a God of love, when He allows pain? Can God be a God of mercy, when He permits disease? He might prevent pain and disease; but He does not. How can these things be?" Such is the reasoning which often comes across the heart of man.
I reply to all such reasoners, that their doubts and questionings are most unreasonable. They might as well doubt the existence of a Creator, because the order of the universe is disturbed by earthquakes, hurricanes, and storms. They might as well doubt the providence of God, because of the horrible massacres of Delhi and Cawnpore. All this would be just as reasonable as to doubt the mercy of God, because of the presence of sickness in the world.
I ask all who find it hard to reconcile the prevalence of disease and pain with the love of God, to cast their eyes on the world around them, and to mark what is going on. I ask them to observe the extent to which men constantly submit to present loss for the sake of future gain, present sorrow for the sake of future joy,–present pain for the sake of future health. The seed is thrown into the ground, and rots: but we sow in the hope of a future harvest. The boy is sent to school amidst many tears: but we send him in the hope of his getting future wisdom. The father of a family undergoes some fearful surgical operation: but he bears it, in the hope of future health.–I ask men to apply this great principle to God’s government of the world. I ask them to believe that God allows pain, sickness, and disease, not because He loves to vex man, but because He desires to benefit man’s heart, and mind, and conscience, and soul, to all eternity.
Once more I repeat, that I speak of the "benefits" of sickness on purpose and advisedly. I know the suffering and pain which sickness entails. I admit the misery and wretchedness which it often brings in its train. But I cannot regard it as an unmixed evil. I see in it a wise permission of God. I see in it a useful provision to check the ravages of sin and the devil among men’s souls. If man had never sinned I should have been at a loss to discern the benefit of sickness. But since sin is in the world, I can see that sickness is a good. It is a blessing quite as much as a curse. It is a rough schoolmaster, I grant. But it is a real friend to man’s soul.
(a) Sickness helps to remind men of death.
The most live as if they were never going to die. They follow business, or pleasure, or politics, or science, as if earth was their eternal home. They plan and scheme for the future, like the rich fool in the parable, as if they had a long lease of life, and were not tenants at will. A heavy illness sometimes goes far to dispel these delusions. It awakens men from their day –dreams, and reminds them that they have to die as well as to live. Now this I say emphatically is a mighty good.
(b) Sickness helps to make men think seriously of God, and their souls, and the world to come.
The most in their days of health can find no time for such thoughts. They dislike them. They put them away. They count them troublesome and disagreeable. Now a severe disease has sometimes a wonderful power of mustering and rallying these thoughts, and bringing them up before the eyes of a man’s soul. Even a wicked king like Benhadad, when sick, could think of Elisha (2 Kings 8:8.) Even heathen sailors, when death was in sight, were afraid, and "cried every man to his god." (Jonah 1:5.) Surely anything that helps to make men think is a good.
(C) Sickness helps to soften men's hearts, and teach them wisdom.
The natural heart is as hard as a stone. It can see no good in anything which is not of this life, and no happiness excepting in this world. A long illness sometimes goes far to correct these ideas. It exposes the emptiness and hollowness of what the world calls "good" things, and teaches us to hold them with a loose hand. The man of business finds that money alone is not everything the heart requires. The woman of the world finds that costly apparel, and novel-reading, and the reports of balls and operas, are miserable comforters in a sick room. Surely anything that obliges us to alter our weights and measures of earthly things is a real good.
(d) Sickness helps to level and humble us.
We are all naturally proud and high–minded. Few, even of the poorest, are free from the infection. Few are to be found who do not look down on somebody else, and secretly flatter themselves that they are "not as other men." A sick bed is a mighty tamer of such thoughts as these. It forces on us the mighty truth that we are all poor worms, that we "dwell in houses of clay," and are "crushed before the moth." (Job 4:19), and that kings and subjects, masters and servants, rich and poor, are all dying creatures, and will soon stand side by side at the bar of God. In the sight of the coffin and the grave it is not easy to be proud. Surely anything that teaches that lesson is good.
(e) Finally, sickness helps to try men’s religion, of what sort it is.
There are not many on earth who have no religion at all. Yet few have a religion that will bear inspection. Most are content with traditions received from their fathers, and can render no reason of the hope that is in them. Now disease is sometimes most useful to a man in exposing the utter worthlessness of his soul’s foundation. It often shows him that he has nothing solid under his feet, and nothing firm under his hand. It makes him find out that, although he may have had a form of religion, he has been all his life worshipping "an unknown God." Many a creed looks well on the smooth waters of health, which turns out utterly unsound and useless on the rough waves of the sick bed. The storms of winter often bring out the defects in a man’s dwelling, and sickness often exposes the gracelessness of a man’s soul. Surely anything that makes us find out the real character of our faith is a good.
I do not say that sickness confers these benefits on all to whom it comes. Alas, I can say nothing of the kind! Myriads are yearly laid low by illness, and restored to health, who evidently learn no lesson from their sick beds, and return again to the world. Myriads are yearly passing through sickness to the grave, and yet receiving no more spiritual impression from it than the beasts that perish. While they live they have no feeling, and when they die there are "no bands in their death." (Psalm 73:4.) These are awful things to say. But they are true. The degree of deadness to which man’s heart and conscience may attain, is a depth which I cannot pretend to fathom.
But does sickness confer the benefits of which I have been speaking on only a few? I will allow nothing of the kind. I believe that in very many cases sickness produces impressions more or less akin to those of which I have just been speaking. I believe that in many minds sickness is God’s "day of visitation," and that feelings are continually aroused on a sick bed which, if improved, might, by God’s grace, result in salvation. I believe that in heathen lands sickness often paves the way for the missionary, and makes the poor idolater lend a willing ear to the glad tidings of the Gospel. I believe that in our own land sickness is one of the greatest aids to the minister of the Gospel, and that sermons and counsels are often brought home in the day of disease which we have neglected in the day of health. I believe that sickness is one of God’s most important subordinate instruments in the saving of men, and that though the feelings it calls forth are often temporary, it is also often a means whereby the Spirit works effectually on the heart. In short, I believe firmly that the sickness of men’s bodies has often led, in God’s wonderful providence, to the salvation of men’s souls.
I leave this branch of my subject here. It needs no further remark. If sickness can do the things of which I have been speaking (and who will gainsay it?), if sickness in a wicked world can help to make men think of God and their souls, then sickness confers benefits on mankind.
We have no right to murmur at sickness, and repine at its presence in the world. We ought rather to thank God for it. It is God’s witness. It is the soul’s adviser. It is an awakener to the conscience. It is a purifier to the heart. Surely I have a right to tell you that sickness is a blessing and not a curse, –a help and not an injury, –a gain and not a loss,–a friend and not a foe to mankind. So long as we have a world wherein there is sin, it is a mercy that it is a world wherein there is sickness.